Homebrewed Beer: Make Your Own and Save Money?
A brewery has been born in my kitchen. There is a huge stockpot, with foam clinging to the sides, a giant thermometer, something that looks like a thermometer but isn't, mysterious tubes and tubing and oddly-shaped brushes. A bag of "carbonation drops" (which look just like lemon drops, except that they are white) sits in a box, along with bottle caps, a capping apparatus, and other small things I cannot identify. As I write this, I am looking at a six-gallon glass "carboy" (a huge, heavy, bottle) full of future beer in our dining room. For a while, our house smells like a brewery, but in a good way. (See also: 21 Great Uses for Beer)
My husband decided to give homebrewing a try last December, when a friend of ours served his homemade beer with lunch at their home. It was fabulous. We tried two types — a pilsener and an ale — and we were hooked. The most amazing thing, though, was our friend claimed it was cheaper than buying.
Wait, you say, not necessarily. Correct. My husband drinks what I'd consider to be mid-priced beer: Primo, Kirin Ichiban, Heineken, St. Pauli Girl, Corona. He likes some microbrews, but they are not usually in our beer budget. If he were a "Bud Light" guy, this would not be cost-effective. But at the price we pay per case (about $22 - $25), this should work out well.
Besides the flavor and the cost, there are intangible reasons to make your own beer. If you have not yet seen the documentary, "Beer Wars," I highly recommend it. As it turns out, fewer and fewer of those mid-priced beers we buy are independently brewed. Most of the beer in the world is brewed by two huge, growing conglomerates. Somehow, for us at least, that takes some of the appeal, or the intrigue, away from trying beers from around the world.
The process reminds me a lot of canning, in that there is a lot of work to be done beforehand, like sanitizing and boiling and mixing. There is also a lot of equipment involved, which is why brewing doesn't begin to save you money until you are several batches in. And, frankly, if you are someone who always has to have bigger, better, newer things for your hobby, it may never save you money.
For equipment, we started at a slight advantage, as we already owned the carboy, a food-grade plastic bucket, and a few smaller items. Trips to two different local homebrew stores rounded out what he needed, at a cost of just about $150. He purchased the homebrewer's bible, The Complete Joy of Home Brewing (Charlie Papazian) and I bought him The Home-Brewer's Answer Book (Ashton Lewis ), each of which retails for about $15, new. We had to save up sixty bottles to start the bottling which only cost us a nickel apiece that we didn't receive for recycling them. If you had to buy the bottles, that would cost much more — about $1 apiece. (Our neighbors obliged by drinking up and saving their bottles to help the cause.)
Roughly, the start-up cost was about $180. Had we needed to buy a carboy and a bucket, it would have been about $50 more. Of course, used equipment, which occasionally shows up on Craigslist, eBay, and at garage sales, could greatly reduce startup costs. My husband saw an offer of a bottle drying rack for free on Craigslist in another part of the country, with the note that a 6-pack of homebrew would be a nice thank-you.
A standard batch of homebrew is five gallons, which should make more than 48 bottles, or two cases of beer. At our usual $22 to $25 per case, that would be more than $44 to $50 worth of beer. The ingredients and consumable supplies for the first batch cost $31, so this represents a $13 to $19 savings on two cases. As you can see, it will take several batches to make back our initial capital outlay for equipment and supplies.
For a microbrew buyer, the break-even point would come much sooner. Like all such hobbies, though, one has to weigh the cost, plus the labor, against the benefits — both tangible and intangible — to make a decision. Yes, the labor is considerable, but the satisfaction of learning a craft, making something so satisfying, making it better than what we normally buy, and having something alive and slightly magical bubbling away in the house, outweigh that, for us. And hey, it's fun.
Day 1 Lessons
- He started kind of late in the day. It is now 7:36 p.m., and he still needs to cool the batch to "pitch" the yeast in.
- The dogs also loved the smell and have been underfoot, which is annoying. They should be banished outside, but it is pouring rain.
- Give your brewmeister his space. (I totally understand this, because when I am canning, I want everyone out of my way.) I have kept my questions to a minimum.
- He should have marked the carboy with gallon measurements beforehand.
- He should have washed the giant stockpot in which he boiled the wort (water, hops, etc.) after it was emptied, not two hours later.
Beer-making, as it turns out, is also apparently a fantastic male bonding experience. They seem to like talking about beer almost as much as they like tasting it. There is also a local club he can join, which sounds like a lot of fun. They can apparently get together to share their latest creations and talk about brewing.
Being a huge fan of DIY cost-saving items, I am anxious to sample, but am told it takes about three weeks before it is ready to drink.
I will report back when we have our tasting. In the meantime, I feel a mysterious urge to make hot wings.
Disclaimer: Check with your state for laws regarding homebrewing.